Sunday, April 26, 2015

Day 13 & 14 Eleuthera to Exuma Land & Sea Park

We have been SOOOO lucky on this visit that the sailing has been so good.  We have sailed every leg, even if maybe there was occasionally a little assist from one engine.  Our last great sail was 43 miles ascross Exuma Sound between Rock Sound, Eleuthera and Warderick Wells in the Exuma Cays, headquarters of the Exuma Land and Sea Park.

We pulled in to Warderick Wells, naively thinking it was first-come first-served, but we were lucky to get a mooring anyway.  After a gentle reprimand, we learned to read the fine print in our Explorer Chart kit more carefully and were ready the next morning for the 9am mooring request broadcast on Channel 9!

Warderick Wells is a gorgeous anchorage, a long ribbon of blue water doubling back and forth between white sand banks that uncover at low tide.  

The downside of the anchorage (and of the Bahamas in general) is the power of the tidal currents that race through these channels.  

That first evening, Don and I jumped in and struck out across the channel towards just one of the pretty white beaches.  Midway across there was a gorgeous reef below us.  But there was no pausing to gawk, the current trying to sweep us away.  WE were strong enough swimmers to handle it, but it wasn't relaxing. Tom and Bette came to the beach by dinghy and enjoyed simply frolicking in its clear, much-stiller water.

The next day we dinghied over to the "Ranger's Gardens", a recommended snorkeling spot in about the center of the above photo. It wasn't very deep, and the coral wasn't extensive -- a shallow reef of mostly soft coral clumps with several full-fledged coral heads and patch reefs.  

But it was packed with critters thumbing their noses at snorkelers, clearly knowing they were protected there in the park.  There were lobsters strolling around on the bottom, and others playing jungle-gym on the coral heads.  There was also a wide assortment of bright tropical fish of all sizes, and the water was bright and clear in the midday sun.  

I was armed with my new Nikon water-proof camera (purchased to be able to keep up with Kai on our camping trips) and I had fun trying to capture photos of fish I used to take for granted.

All of us were delighted.  It was like a playground for retired divers!  Nowhere else we'd been had had anything much underwater to please.  We vowed we would come back the following two weeks for a longer stay after Tom and Bette's old friends from Mobile had joined us.

That night we went out around to the Emerald Rock Anchorage (free), a trip that reminded us that in the Bahamas it is no given thing that you can go easily from here to there.

Don and I snorkeled Emerald Rock which was a hefty swim from the boat, and were grateful for the workout, though the reward was a bit underwhelming coral and fish wise, but for a nice little clump on the north side. 

But the highlight of this anchorage was sitting out on the tramps for cocktails in the cool evening air feeling like we had the world to ourselves.

Bette & Tom

From Emerald Rock the next morning, we made our first trip on the "inside" of the Exuma chain through the narrow highway of deep-enough water between the west faces of the cays and the Exuma Bank.  The wind was piping from the SE, so to go outside would have meant a hard motor-slog into both wind and seas.  Inside we just had wind, and tricky navigating!  We had almost a hundred miles to make to get back to Georgetown by the end of the following day, and suddenly our distance away loomed large.  

Even so, I persuaded Tom to break it up with a stop at Cambridge Island, the southernmost of the Exuma Park Islands.  We are glad we did, though coming in involved a very butt-puckering wending of our way in through a few very shallow spots!

It was hard to decide if this anchorage in the park was or wasn't even more gorgeous than Warderick Wells.

We launched the dinghy and went in for a drift dive starting alongside a sand bank and riding the current fast over a nice reef and then alongside two little motu each with its own  perfect little reef communities.  We were enchanted.  And these spot weren't even on the chartlets of recommended spots.  So we vowed we would come back here, too.

Slam, bam, thank you, Tom.  Dinghy up and we're again on our way south.  We motored all the rest of the day,  pulled into Black Point for an overnight rest, braved the Dotham Cut's tide race the next morning and motored some 65 miles back to Georgetown and Quantum Leap's mooring at the St. Francis Resort.

All this in the first two weeks!  Lots of boatwork, lots of new places, daily yoga and awesome meals.  Life is good.  Don and I couldn't fathom why we ever gave it up.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Days 11 & 12

The Sunday evening after we left Spanish Wells, we made it all the way to a lovely anchorage on Eleuthera called Alabaster Bay.  We were the only boat in sight.  At the head of the beach was a cluster of charming buildings identified in the Explorer Charts as a resort.

Apparently that has changed, as the boys, dinghying ashore to investigate were headed off by a beach walker with the news that it is now private.  Well, after eating out for several days in Spanish Wells, our wallets were happy enough to stay home, and eating out of Bette Lee's galley (whether she or I cook) is never a hardship!

On Monday I was determined to get a swim in.  Don and I have been very good about doing yoga every morning, a true pleasure on the foredeck of a catamaran in such gorgeous surroundings

(but also maintained in our air-conditioned Spanish Wells apartment!), but whenever possible, I like to include an aerobic swim.  

Tom does not always choose his anchorages based on my swimming needs!    My preference is to have a destination to swim to, and waters protected from boat traffic to swim through!

Alabaster Bay seemed idyllic, with white sand to swim over and a rocky point to aim for.  Suddenly, however, everyone wanted to go, so instead of swimming over, we dinghied over.  I won't say it was an awesome snorkle spot-- there weren't many fish, but there were big submerged boulders and shady overhands to hunt under. For me, a highlight were schools of bait fish to swim through.  There is nothing more ethereal!  There was also a napping nurse shark  under one of the rocks ... reward for all the diving down to look!

And I got my swim in after all, as Bette and I opted to swim the long haul back to the boat, to the men's amazement!

In the afternoon, we sailed onward to the "bottom" of Eleuthera to Rock Sound, a huge Gulf wrapped up by the southern tail of the island.   Friends have a house here and we made several efforts to connect with Bill, but unfortunately he left for the States the previous weekend.  We've heard nice things about Rock Sound, and a bunch of cruising boats were at anchor there, but we got in late enough that we did not launch the dinghy and left the next morning early.  Because they so often have a schedule to keep (this time another couple to collect all the way back in Georgetown), cruising on Quantum Leap is kind of like being on a cruise ship, a great opportunity to get a sampling of an area you would really like to return to and spend more time.

Days 8, 9 & 10: Spanish Wells

Well!  I spent a day putting together a detailed post of our three days in Spanish Wells, complete with lots of photos.  In one of those awesomely frustrating unexplained phenomena, that whole post has disappeared!  So discouraging!  In fact, so discouraging, I quit trying to keep/catch up with the posts as we traveled.  I know it's my own fault.  I put too much in.  So here goes a shot at a more abbreviated version.

On the 8th day of our voyage aboard Quantum Leap, she was hauled out at R&B boatyard, a tiny facility on the Spanish Wells waterfront that featured a Synchro-Lift.  This is a type of drydock that lowers down into the water deep enough for the boat to float aboard, and then elevates the vessel up to dock level, as Robert, the owner, working on a hookah rig, scrambles around in the water placing blocks and jackstands.

Meanwhile we gals were getting ourselves set up in the two apartments we rented for Friday and Saturday nights.  the apartments were upstairs above Harborside Golf Cart rentals, and, in fact, came with their own golf cart. 

 It is amazing to me how fast Don and I reverted to the cruiser mentality of wonder and awe over the trappings of civilization.  We were expecting something rough, but our apartment had a kitchen, a bedroom with a king-sized bed, modern bathroom, two TVs, air-con, Internet and the piece de resistance, a stacked washer and drier. 

 This last saved us big $ at a laundramat because we had sheets and towels to wash as well as clothes.  Have I mentioned that the cool temps of our arrival week were giving way to a general warm-up?

Although the main out-of-water work -- sanding and repainting the bottom -- would be done by R&B workers, Tom and Don were kept busy with other chores. They checked oil in the outdrives, changed both zincs, serviced both engines including changing fuel and oil filters, and finally, Sunday morning before we left, washed off the accumulated blue dust from all the nooks and crannies of the boat.  Bette and I observed the Don and Tom play well together.

Meanwhile, Bette and I did laundry and provisioned at Spanish Wells' nice supermarket Food Fair.  We did this by golf cart.  
We bought so much, we wondered how we would ever keep it aboard the cart.  Who knew that a golf cart could be converted to a staionwagon.  It took our cashier to show us!

It was not all work and no play.  I believe we ate at every restaurant on the island at least once.  Our favorite was Buddah's, an eatery created in Buddah's back yard with a kitchen in an old school bus, a bar, at the back, a tented eating area, and a liquor store in the back room.  The food was great and affordable, and we are grateful tot the cruisers who steered us here.

On our last evening we ate at the Sand Bar, a beach shack way out over the bridge to the tip of Russell islands, a major drive by golf cart.  

Here we met one of the local lobstermen for which Spanish Wells is famous, out for dinner with his wife.  He told us the Spanish Wells fleet brings in half the lobster catch of the whole Bahamas! The lobster boats here are big vessels reminiscent of shrimpers, but they mostly serve as a residences when the fisherman are out. 

 Catching the lobsters is still done by hand by divers working off a hookah.  The current strategy is to place down habitats for lobsters to provide them safe places to gather, procreate and grow.  These are down all summer during the off season.  when season starts again in the fall, the lobsters are ready and waiting for them. 

Quantum Leap was launched Sunday.  Sunday is not usually a work day, but R&B knew they had delayed us a day already.  Also, however, they needed to free up the lift of a catamaran they had gone out to salvage the day before.  Seems a cruising couple had failed to reach Current Cut before nightfall and they made the seemingly prudent decision not to try to go through.  Unfortunately, this left them on the windward side with a huge fetch and some very shallow reefs all around.  Something went awry with their anchoring, and during the night the boat went up on a reef, was holed and sank.  The couple had to be rescued off the boat in the dark.

Just as I was climbing aboard for departure, Don hurried up to say that the stranded couple were people I knew.  She had been one of my contributing Admirals for all the years I was writing the Admirals Angle column.  It turned out to be Suzanne Longacre and her husband of the catamaran Zeelander!  They are not typical senior Bahamas cruisers, but sailors who have been around the world. I had just enough time to hurry over to deliver a heartfelt hug.

On our way out to Current Cut ourselves, we passed Zeelander buoyed up but awash. It is a sad sight. We heard from R&B that the damage was significant, but Suzanne and husband were talking strong about rebuilding her.  We can only hope for a fair outcome from an unfair mishap.  

But it sure reminds all skippers that bad things can happen from a moments miscalculation! WE, ourselves, went back through Current Cut with extra attention.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Day 7: Arrival in Spanish Wells

Tom and Bette, armed with their Bahamas phone chips, were in regular touch with Robert of R&B boat yard about the time of their haulout.  It was Tom's hope to go directly into the lift.  But a haulout facility is a busy place, needing to deal with emergencies as well as scheduled hauls.  So, after hurrying us up here to Eleuthera a couple of days early, now Robert needed to delay us a bit.  So we enjoyed a leisurely morning and motored up the hour's hop to Spanish Wells midday.


Spanish Wells is an island -- well actually three islands, Charles and Russel being tucked up against Spanish Wells like baby whales --situated at the top curve of Eleuthera's island group.  To the north/ Atlantic side is a reef structure that begins above Royal Island and wraps east over Spanish Wells, the top promontory of neighboring Eleuthera and around to famous Harbor Island, the most tortuous part of which is called the Devil's Backbone and requires a pilot to safely traverse it.  That, of course, is an area known for good diving and snorkeling.  Sigh.  But we weren't here for watersports.  We were here for a bottom job.

Eleuthera means freedom, and the community of Spanish Wells dates back to the 1600s when a group seeking religious freedom set out from England, explaining the island-wide accents that are very broad and New England-y. Spanish Wells is renowned for its fishing fleet, which is said to bring in more than half of the Bahamas catch of lobster.  The community of Spanish Wells fills up the whole island (officially named St. George's Cay, but rarely called anything other than Spanish Wells) and spills over a bridge onto Russell Island.  Downtown, the houses are small, neat, and reminiscent of New England beach cottages but for their bright tropical color combinations.  Moving west, the lots get bigger and the houses also, built of more contemporary materials like concrete and stucco with some elaborate gardens.

The entry channel to Spanish Wells is a winding "S" through the shallows of slightly deeper blue with channel markers that don't exactly jump put and identify themselves.  

Quantum Leap is a big wide boat, so it was comforting to know sisterships had gone in before us.  Little did we realize that we were shrimps compared to the many boats of Spanish Wells' professional lobster fleet, not to mention the Fast Ferry from Nassau!

R&B was not ready for us.  A work barge, freshly painted yellow, was tying up the lift, something incomplete.  

We went alongside the fuel dock at Pinder Fuel & Grocery to sort things out.  Bette had made an awesome red lentil stew with sweet potato, carrot and chayote for our lunch featuring a dollop of "fufu" sunk in 

 FuFu is as a starch, of African orgigin, often of cassava but in this case made of plantain flour that Bette found on the shelves of the grocery in Governor's Harbor.  With a belly-full of that, the crew was ready to snooze, but we could not tie up Pinder's dock much longer.  It developed that R&B couldn"t take us until Friday morning, so we moved off to another dock tucked very close under the high bow of a lobster boat, Sea Gem.  With nothing much to do at this point, we all went down for that nap, a pleasant snooze despite the clatter passing golf carts and the mutter of life on the adjacent commercial dock.  

Then all nappers were abruptly awaked by the arrival of the fast ferry, whose dock it seemed was just ahead of us.  The noise was tremendous, but it hardly held a candle to the size of the thing.  Compared to this thing, Quantum Leap is a baby cat.

Still in suspense about the timing of things, we finally treated ourselves to dinner at a restaurant we could readily walk to, The Ship Yard, an "upscale" place clearly going for the tourist trade located right at the east tip of the island. It was a pretty place, with free wifi (which we all scrurried to use), but the menu was quite pricey and the meals, in hindsight, not as exciting as the price would suggest.  Hard to beat Bette Lee's cooking!

But the walk home along the quiet streets betwen quaint cottages in sweet color schemes put us in a mood to be receptive to Spanish Wells' charms.  Tomorrow would be another day.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Day Six: Crossing to Royal Island

Except for the several hours travelling from Cape Eleuthera and Rock Sound up to Governor's Harbor and the in an out at Lee Stocking Island, most of our navigating had been in deep water of Exuma Sound.  From Governor's Harbor (0) to our next anchorage at Royal Island (3), this changed.  

Not that it was all that shallow for most of the trip.  In fact, for most of the trip it was an easy downwind sail across the deeper part of the bank.  Don was below putzing with the water-maker unit he has been working on since Fiji!  Bette Lee was cleaning and cooking, and I was on watch and cleaning the cockpit stainless which had gathered a lot of rust during storage.

But as we approached Current Cut, things got a little dicier.

How people navigated around here without chartplotters is a question I hope I never have to answer.  Particularly the first time.    A cut like this needs to be traversed on a favorable tide, at slack or with a bit of push.  Plus as you can see, the approach from the East (right) is beset either side with shoals and reefs.  

Tom got us there at the perfect time, a midday high tide with gread sun overhead.  We'd made a radio Securite' call of our 26' wide craft about to go through in order to avoid a head-on passing situation in the tightest stretch.  Imagine our amazement when we encountered no boats but snorkelers in the water right at the narrowest point!  Fortunately they kept to the side and out of the current, and we passed through easily.

From there it was an easy sail across to Royal Island, a very protected anchorage that our house sitter Debbie had recommended.

Note the tricky entrance!  Yes, it is the narrow one on the left.  No sooner had Tom so successfully managed current cut, than we almost entered through the wrong one which has several submerged obstacles.  Ooops!  We were alerted by a radio call from one of the anchored boats within, and spun hard around.  It is so easy to relax and forget to to double check the chart when the way forward looks easy.

Royal Island has seen several efforts at development, but mostly those efforts have come to nought, leaving behind abandoned earth moving equipment and the odd jetty and foundation.  This was the first anchorage we'd been in where it was tempting/realistic for me to swim.  I had sworn to swim every day, but except for bottom cleaning, which trust me was plenty vigorous, had not.  There were several reasons for this:  1)  Tom likes to anchor his big boat with a lot of rode in the middle of anchorages, a safety conscious choice.  This strategy however leaves a swimmer out in the middle, potentially exposed to boat traffic and usually with little on the bottom to look at.  2)  I'd picked up some nasty red stings/bites, which I believed must have come from the bottom cleaning, even though I was wearing a Lycra suit (albeit a very old and baggy Lycra suit...Note to self:  Order new suits!)  At the first anchorage at Lee Stocking, I kinda wanted to let them settle down.  3) the temps have not been all that inviting.  I now understand why Debbie our house sitter who had just returned from her month in the Bahamas looked at me a bit askance as I packed three swimsuits.

But I was determined not to be all talk and no action.  So, in I jumped, checked the anchor which had completely buried itself in the soft sand, and set off for the rock dividing the anchorage's opening,  There was almost nothing to see until I got right up on the rock, but in very shallow water up close, abruptly there were small corals and sponges.  Almost the first thing I saw an octopus about the size of a softball!  Quite the welcome committee.  

As I circumswam the rock I saw, a half dozen small Nassau grouper, four gray angels, a free swimming spotted moray, a queen angel, a small yellow stingray, and many small reef fish, a list I would be happy to see on any dive.  I then swam across the entry channel to the opposite point hoping for more of same.  Just inside was a very shallow patch of healthy knobby green corals with lots of little fish, but inside or outside there was nothing!  So back I swam for another go round of the rock, and then back across the sand to the boat.

The anchorage at Royal was the most like our favorite kinds of anchorages - protected and encircled -- and is clearly popular with cruisers has the half dozen boats that were there when we came in swelled to a full dozen by nightfall.  The stars were brilliant and some rum was sipped.  We all slept very well.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Day Five: Governor's Harbor

Waking up in Governor's Harbor, Captain Tom decreed a day or rest and exploration.  Governor's Harbor was the original captial of the Bahamas, and the attractive town rolls up a steep hill above the harbor which is protected to the south as well as east by a projecting spit of sand that has been lengthened by the addition of a long jetty.  Due to our late arrival, we were anchored quite a ways offshore, outside some moorings and other anchored boats.  Still our night had been settled with a good breeze and no bugs.

So, after yoga and leisurely coffee followed by a gorgous breakfast by Bette Lee, we lowered the dinghy and went ashore to explore.  Like all good cruisers, we were first drawn to address boat life concerns, that is whether the stores here in Governor's Harbor might have more, better or different produce and food products, whether the hardwarde stores might cough up something useful or the liquor stores better rum at better prices, and, for Tom and Bette Lee, a phone store to get Bahamas SIMs in their phones for phone service and cellular data.  It's not cheap, but it is cheaper than roaming!   

Once again Don and I rued our committment to Verizon, which doesn't enable the use of SIM cards, although Don had had the foresight to prepay for International calling.  That meant we could call Tiffany to check on the family and the business,and  call Debbie to check on our furry kids as well.  However, you'd better get all the right switches clicked off in Settings or you can be in for some expensive surprises.  The stop at the phone store paid off for us when the agent there took care of that for us after our having already run up some inadvertent data charges.  Yikes!  Note to self:  Buy a unlocked SIM phone for travel.

Bette Lee is having some knee issues, so our foursome didn't walk quite as far afield as we once might have.  In truth, after all these years of island travel, the allure of unexplored territory is not always strong enough to overcome inertia!  Plus daytime temps on the street were pretty warm.  So we all happily took a local's recommendation to backtrack for lunch at Da Perk, a coffee nook we passed right at the waterfront.

The boys still had some dinghy fuel projects, so when we returned to the boat, we decided to move her closer in.  The chart claims that Governor's Harbor has unreliable holding, and so we found we we struggled to get the anchor rest.  Good thing we had lucked out the night before in the dark!  So, while the boys went back ashore, Bette and I "stood watch" out on the foredeck tramps talking and enjoying the breeze.  We were all prepared to jump up and reanchor if we had to.  REally.  These two lady captains could have handled it just fine.  Fortunately, the anchor seemed to settle in.

Day Four: A Big Jump to Eleuthera

Today's leg was a much bigger bite.  Our planned distance was about 90 miles, and the wind was forecast to freshen further and bring, perhaps, a little weather with it.  We brought the anchor up after coffee but before breakfast, retraced our way out to open water, and set our sails again, this time with a reef in the main.

Once again, with wind just aft of the beam, Quantum Leap took off eagerly.  As the day progressed, however, the clouds knit themselves together, the wind crept up to the high 20s, and we took some headsail in.  Still the ride was pleasant, and a lot of reading got done.

Don was at the helm as the rain blew through, and we all smiled at him encouragingly from the protection of the salon where lunch was just on the table!  He kept trying to tell me it was my watch.  I thought he was joking, but actually, the trip was long enough that we had reverted to last year's watch schedule....and he wasn't joking.  But he WAS already wet, so I let him finish the squall out. ;-)

We approached Rock Sound, Eleuthera (3) in late afternoon.  It was our originally planned stopping place, but Tom calculated we could push on to Governor's Harbor (4) and arrive before dark.  Tom's calculations were spot on and we dropped the hook just as dark was settling in.  Three meals underway and a rousing sail.  It's like none of us had ever been away!